Climate Change, Disease Outbreak, Infectious Diseases, Poverty, Water and Sanitation

The Environmental Cost that Living in this World Puts on Our Health

~Written by Sarah Khalid Khan (Contact:

As revolting as it sounds, there are places in the world where the chances of consuming one’s neighbours’ faeces are quite high if one is not vigilant regarding sanitation and hygiene. That being the condition of many areas in low and lower-middle income countries does not mean that high and higher-middle income countries are exempt from any environmental conditions that are harmful to health.

But, what is environment health? The World Health Organization (WHO) defines the term as, “All the physical, chemical, and biological factors external to a person, and all the related factors impacting behaviours”. It, however, excludes genetics and the social and cultural environment.

In low-income settings, concerns for environmental health may arise in the context of sanitation and hygiene, as well as indoor and outdoor pollution. In high-income countries, many chronic diseases like diabetes and cardiovascular disease, are associated with sedentary lifestyles. While these might be attributed to behaviour, one must consider that such behaviours can arise from changes in the environment. Over 80% of communicable and non-communicable diseases can be attributed to environmental hazards.  Overall, conservative estimates indicate that about one quarter of the total global burden of disease is owing to this cause (WHO, 2011). Furthermore, the biggest killers of children under 5 years are all environmental-related diseases, including diarrhoea, respiratory infections, and malaria.

Other diseases of concern are helminthic infections, trachoma (a bacterial eye infection), Chagas disease, leishmaniosis, onchocerciasis, and dengue fever. All of which are associated with impoverished conditions and can be mitigated by improving sanitation, hygiene, and housing. Although conflicts and natural disasters might be catastrophic for any country, struggling economies tend to suffer more because disasters worsen the poor conditions which directly affect sanitation and hygiene practices, creating conducive conditions for various infectious diseases, and ultimately feeding into the vicious cycle of poverty.

Many interventions are underway to address these conditions, including Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) initiatives, Integrated Vector Management, Programme on Household Air Pollution, International Programme on Chemical Safety, Health and Environment Linkages Initiative, and Intersun Programme for the effects of UV radiation. The acknowledgement of the effects of the environment has grown. One of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) was, “To ensure environmental sustainability.” The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are more extensive and thorough in placing focus on the environment. Goal 1 is to end poverty, goal 6 is to make provision of clean water and sanitation possible, and goal 13 is to stop climatic change resulting in floods and drought (United Nations, 2014).

The Sustainable Development Goals. Source: United Nations System Staff College

It is encouraging to see steps being taken to control environmental hazards; however, the journey to measuring and eradicating such conditions still remains a challenge, which will hopefully be overcome through future endeavours.


United Nations (2014). Sustainable Development Goals. doi:10.1017/CBO9781107415324.004

World Health Organization (2011). WHO Public Health & Environment Global Strategy Overview